Opera de Oviedo 2020-21 Review: I Puritani
John Osborn & Irina Lungu Offer Vocal Fireworks in Bellini’s Final WorkBy Mauricio Villa
The COVID-19 crisis has led to the cancelation of major productions leaving many artists out of work and giving them openings in their usually booked calendars. As a result, the Opera de Oviedo managed to engage acclaimed bel canto tenor John Osborn after the cancelation of two other tenors.
It is hard to write about “I Puritani” without talking about the demanding tenor role. Bellini composed the work for the famous opera star Giovanni Battista Rubini and adapted the vocal writing to match the vocal qualities and stratospheric tessitura that Rubini had. For this production, Opera de Oviedo could not have obtained a better choice for Arturo than John Osborn. The tenor has been praised and even noted to have similar vocal qualities to those of Rubini’s and in this production, he displayed how “I Puritani” should be sung.
A Superb Tenor
Osborn debuted the role of Arturo in 1999 at the Washington Opera and after more than 20 years, he has performed in six productions and a concert performance. Very few tenors in operatic history have kept this role in their repertoire for more than 20 years and on this evening Osborn showed his expertise in it. The American tenor possesses an extremely flexible voice which enables him to go from fortes to pianissimi in his lowest and highest notes. His voice has a dark round middle and when he ascends to the higher register, it obtains a brighter timbre that never loses resonance and can carry easily over the orchestra, chorus, and the rest of the ensemble.
These qualities enabled him to integrate the high notes of the role into Bellini’s long melodies displaying a clear understanding of the bel canto style. One even forgot about how tremendously difficult this role is. His opening aria “A te o cara” showcased beautiful coloring in every phrase of his long legato lines. When he sang his high C sharp, he beautifully diminuendoed the note resolving the phrase on a gleaming B natural. In the second verse, he interpolated an extra B natural and sang his last phrases “a tanto amor” in a delicate and virtuosic pianissimo.
His interpretation of “non parlar di le che adoro,” a semi-aria was emotionally full of remorse and tenderness and during his semi-duet with Riccardo, “Sprezzo audace,” Osborn sang with an aggressive and menacing timbre. Here Osborn delivered a strong and secure B natural and even added an extra one in the phrase “ ti sprezzo.”
Act three is perhaps the biggest challenge of the evening for the tenor as he must sing for almost 40 minutes nonstop. It opens with the aria “Son salvo…A una fonte” where Osborn showcased astonishing breath control and a virtuosic use of dynamics, singing the line “della patria e il suo destin” in a single breath. The phrase, which demands a chromatic ascension to a high B flat and requires a crescendo/ diminuendo for three long bars, showcased Osborn coloring every phrase. He also paid attention to every single dynamic in the score as he sang with a ringing tone all while lying upside down and crawling on the sand surface of the stage.
During the duet with Elvira, “Fini… Nel mirarti,” the tenor showcased his stratospheric high notes singing ringing A naturals, a B natural, two high D naturals, and an interpolated high C at the end of “Vieni fra queste braccia.” Osborn’s voice especially shined as he made a diminuendo on his first high D and then sustained a vibrant second D. What was also admirable in the duet was how well Osborn and soprano Irina Lungu’s voice blended to create a riveting moment.
The opera ends with one of the most demanding arias in the tenor repertoire, “credeasi misera.” Here Osborn maintained Bellini’s long legato phrases and also relished in the use of dynamics. He also proved his amazing stamina as he sang the score as written, with a D flat on the “ella e tremante, ella e spirante” and then interpolated the High F on “un solo instante l’ira frenate” and then descended to the written high E flat and D flat.
Osborn’s performance was a festivity of bel canto and he proved why he is one of the great “Arturos” at the moment.
A Vocal Treat
Irina Lungu brought her acclaimed interpretation of Elvira to Oviedo for the first time. The role was conceived for a lyric soprano with coloratura whose writing lies mostly in the middle register with some ascensions to a high B, C, and D flat. During the bel canto renaissance around 1950, the role started to be performed by lirico-leggera sopranos and began traditions that included several high D naturals and an E flat. Sopranos also started to add variations and cadenzas in the upper register.
Lungu was up to the task and was a delight as her lyrical voice was accompanied by stunning voluminous high notes, clean coloratura, and exquisite pianissimi. The role of Elvira opens with a duet with “Giorgio” in which she shows her instability declaring she will never get married and prefers to die before jubilating over her upcoming marriage with Arturo. It is a piece that combines gorgeous legato phrases with intricate coloratura lines that establishes Elvira’s vocal writing throughout the opera. Lungu showed beautiful control of Bellini’s line and her sublime middle voice projected wonderfully into the auditorium. She also brought sonorous high notes to the duet including a climactic High D natural.
During Arturo’s entrance aria “A te o cara,” Lungu displayed her breath control by sustaining A naturals for several bars while making a breathtaking diminuendo. In the polonaise “Son Vergin Vezzosa,” Lungu sang with an impeccable coloratura technique showing her flexibility from her low to high reigsters and inserted variations as well as several high Ds that were sung during staccati and pianissimi phrases. There were also two well supported high Ds that projected well into the auditorium.
Elvira’s first big aria “Vieni al Tempio” comes at the end of Act one and it represents her first mad scene in the work. Elvira cries for her lost Arturo and in this piece, the soprano is forced to ascend to high C’s all while accompanied by a full orchestra and chorus. Lungu’s voice resonated over the ensemble emitting the pain in her character. She also showed the qualities of her lyrical voice and strong middle while keeping the long legato lines Bellini was famous for.
Act two contains the most famous piece of the work, as the soprano sings her mad scene “Qui la voce…Vien diletto,” which is almost 20 minutes. Bellini chose to write the piece in the middle register for the vocalist to show gorgeous legato singing and in the cabaletta, the composer gave the soprano fierce coloratura that has become a piece for the display of vocal pyrotechnics. During the cabaletta, Lungu included variations and a long voluminous high E flat. Her interpretation of the mad scene was warmly rewarded by the audience but it was a bit cold and I wished she could have gone deeper into the character.
In the third act, Lungu made her presence felt in the duet with Arturo as she interpolated a high D natural in “Vieni fra queste braccia” and a high C at the end of the duet. She also Lungu added an extra high D in the “Nel mirarti” cadenza.
The role of Riccardo was sung by Slovak baritone Dalibor Jenis who possessed a strong big stage presence throughout the evening. He also showcased his dark round voice which he had complete control of especially during the sustained long melodies of his opening aria “Ah per sempre” and the coloratura of its cabaletta “Bel sogno beato.” His high notes were also of note especially at the end of the cabaletta which he interpolated a long ringing high G and a high A flat that he included in the duet “suoni la trompa.” While the libretto to “I Puritani” is inconsistent and not all the characters are fully fleshed as is the case with Riccardo, Jenis gave dignity and truth to Riccardo with his gestures and movements.
Bass Luca Tittoto performed the role of Giorgio with style and good taste. He possesses a metallic clear sound and an evenness throughout his entire register. The highlights of his performance were his second act aria “Cinta di fiori” which he sang with intense emotion and sorrow and the duet “suoni la trompa,” which was filled with an authoritative and driving determination.
The cast also saw strong performances from Laura Vila and Facundo Muñoz, who sang the short supporting roles of “Enrichetta” and “Bruno.
Sadly the chorus of the Opera de Oviedo sounded muffled and insecure. This was likely because they were forced to sing with protective masks and did not have enough rehearsals. There were also major imbalances with the orchestra and soloists in ensembles as the orchestra was either behind or ahead. However, the young conductor Iván López-Reynoso was still able to offer up a powerful reading of the score, filling the dense orchestrations with resonance, intention, and emotion and it was more than a mere accompaniment to the voices, which can sometimes happen in the bel canto repertoire. In this production, he performed with the traditional cuts in the cabaletta “Son vergin vezzosa,” the solo “non parlar di lei che adoro,” and the duet “Vieni fra queste braccia” but also performed repeats in the cabalettas for the baritone and soprano.
Emilio Sagi’s production premiered in Oviedo after having received acclaim in Chile, Madrid, and Italy. The production includes sets by Daniel Bianco and costumes by the recently deceased Pepa Ojanguren, whom the company is dedicating the run of performances to. Throughout his career, Sagi has specialized in the bel canto repertoire and knows how to create a proper atmosphere for the drama. This production is filled with strong images especially in the mad scene in Act two when Sagi has Elvira carrying a luminous moon and fills the stage with multiple crystal chandeliers.
Another ethereal moment in the production was seen in Act three when Elvira crosses the stage from behind a forest backcloth.
Outside of his incredible imagery what was most striking was Sagi’s respect for the music, drama, and his search for the emotional truth. One could see that in the straight-forward direction and the narrative drive as the performers were at the center of the entire evening. There were some modern touches to the overall romantic looking production such as the costumes and atemporal sets. But those never distracted away from the singers.
The performance respected the health regulations set by the Government of Asturias by keeping social distance in the audience and only allowing 40% occupancy. Meanwhile, the chorus and background actors wore protective masks.
With no incidents reported, the Opera de Oviedo is one of the fortunate institutions to be able to perform and audiences are in for a treat with the company’s current “I Puritani.